You’ve probably heard of the concept of keeping a food journal. It’s a popular weight loss tool (you may refrain from eating 12 cookies if you have to admit to it on paper!). They also come in handy when you think you may be allergic or sensitive to a food or food group (“Ate ice cream at 2 pm, hugged the toilet from 3 to 4”). Basically, you write down everything you eat and drink for two or three weeks to identify something about your diet that you didn’t already know.
Writing down everything you eat and drink right when you eat and drink it can be time-consuming enough. Why go to the trouble of tracking both food and mood? Because you could be missing out on some major clues about your health and happiness if you don’t at least give it a go.
Here are my top six reasons for keeping a “food and mood” journal:
You can identify dietary triggers for behavioral and mental health problems.
It’s true. There’s science behind the impact of food on mood. How you feel at a given time or on a given day may be linked to what you ate or drank. The connection is usually clearer with physical symptoms (I ate this, I got cramps). But by tracking what you eat and drink throughout the day as well as how you feel at those times and in between, you can get a unique insight into how your diet may be affecting your mood, especially over time. For example, saturated fats and simple sugars tend to have negative impacts on mental health.
For some people, food sensitivities and diet patterns cause mental health symptoms rather than overt physical reactions. This is especially the case among children. According to a large study on the topic, kids who eat a lot of sweets and have poor diets tend to have more emotional problems, and those with balanced diets tend to have fewer problems. An older study, also in children, found that allergies were related to regular fatigue and irritability as well as physical symptoms. And the link between food (and drinks) and migraine is well established—many people with severe headaches are able to find trigger foods when they do a food journal.
You can even find tips on special diets for certain mental health issues, such as what foods to eat to calm bipolar mania. Diet can also be linked to how bad your symptoms are for ADHD or other conditions. For example, for people with ADHD, high protein and complex carb consumption may help reduce hyperactivity. Alternatively, a breakfast of simple carbs (waffles and juice) may set you up for a mid-morning inattentive streak. Tracking your diet – and getting help from a dietitian or doctor to interpret the links, if necessary – can help you identify those triggers and their consequences.
You can pinpoint foods or food groups associated with your best moods and mental health.
Research shows diets high in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids tend to benefit people with ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia by reducing their impulsivity. Just as you can use a food and mood journal to find the foods that cause problems for you, the journal can also help identify foods that bring you stability or better mental health.
For example, pretend you ate an egg with toast and fruit for breakfast, followed by a chef salad for lunch and salmon with asparagus for dinner. You had a stable mood all day and generally have been feeling positive. You eat equally well the next two days and have similar steady moods, with no real problem symptoms. Then you indulge in cinnamon rolls and caramel coffee the next morning and have a moody and irritable afternoon.
Bingo! You can use the journal to learn as much about what you should eat to keep your mental health on course as what not to eat. There was something about the diet you had for those first few days that kept your mood in its safe zone. Study and repeat.
You can uncover unhealthy associations between how you feel and how you eat.
We all have some emotional relationship with food, but sometimes it goes a bit further than just loving the way molasses cookies remind you of visits with Grandma at Christmas. A journal that tracks what you feel and what you eat – and the order in which you do those things (“Felt overwhelmed. Ate five brownies.” Vs “Ate five brownies. Felt overwhelmed.”) – highlights whether your food affects your mood or vice versa.
Are you a comfort eater? Do you feel guilty after indulging? Do you eat when you’re bored? Do you try to solve your mood problems with binges or food restriction? These are all things that a food and mood journal can help you learn about yourself. Once you know about these links, you can work to build healthier associations.
You can zero in on dietary deficiencies.
The building blocks of a healthy diet include complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables of many colors, and lean proteins such as fish and poultry. If you’ve tracked your diet for a week or two and can count the number of times you ate a vegetable on one hand (or even both!), you’ve got some room to improve.
Studies show that certain nutrient deficiencies are related to many conditions, including depression and schizophrenia. For example, one study showed that among women, the less magnesium, folate and zinc they got from their diet, the more likely they were to be depressed. Studies have also found that many people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have poor diets, and may eat mostly processed foods with few fruits or veggies.
Although it’s not always clear whether the diet comes before or after the mental health problem, or whether it results from just not knowing how to eat or prepare a balanced diet, the tie shouldn’t be ignored. Give yourself the best chance at better mental health by identifying your dietary deficiencies and working to correct them.
If you need help figuring out what your deficiencies may be, or if you don’t know whether you have any, consider showing your journal to your doctor or dietitian, or reading more about a balanced diet. There are also special diet recommendations for people with certain health conditions, so you can try searching for things like “diets to improve depression” or “what to eat to reduce stress.”
You have a built-in tool for talking to your doctor about diet- or mood-related questions and concerns.
I’ve already suggested showing your doctor or a dietitian your food and mood journal for a few reasons. But there are many reasons you may want to track food and mood for working with your doctor.
The journal serves as a record of what you eat and how you feel. Even if you can’t identify any links between food and mood, you’ve got a built-in log of your mood. Trying a new medication? You should be able to review your journal to see if you’ve had more good days since taking the new prescription than you did before you started. Likewise, if there’s no change, that’s good information to have.
You can also show your food and mood journal to the doctor to talk about what you can do to improve your diet and mood, or to ask whether he/she thinks there is likely a true connection between certain things you eat and your mood. In some cases, your doctor may be able to analyze your journal in a more nuanced way. For example, there may be a delay in how quickly your body processes certain nutrients due to your medication. This could make it seem like your lunch food caused an afternoon mood problem when in fact it may have been your breakfast.
You can adapt your journaling for tons of other uses.
Because these journals are personal, they’re entirely customizable. You can expand your efforts to identify other issues: physical illnesses, medication side effects, barriers to weight loss, energy slumps, how much you spend on lattes, and the list goes on… You can search for trends between what you eat or how you feel and pretty much anything. Are you down in the dumps every morning, or only when it’s raining? Do afternoon coffees keep you from catching a wink of sleep at night? Does alcohol give you the runs? Do you have another food-related association, such as smoking when you eat fried food?
If you want to know, your food, mood, and whatever-you-want journal can help you figure it out. Why not give it a try?
Katherine Brind’Amour, PhD, MS, is a Certified Health Education Specialist and a freelance medical writer focused on turning complex health information into words people actually want to read. Dr. Brind’Amour has written patient and physician education materials for dozens of pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and research studies and loves the challenge of breathing life into what could otherwise be heartbreakingly dry medical communications. She enjoys spending time with her kids, planning dream vacations, experimenting in the kitchen, and streaming Spotify non-stop.